«Something is rotten in the state of Denmark», Shakespeare wrote in his famous play Hamlet. A phrase that survives—and will survive—through time, and that is in force for countless casuistries. Likewise: «there is something rotten in The United Mexican States». This is the main message that emerges from the latest film, by the Mexican director, producer, editor and screenwriter Rodrigo Reyes, entitled 499.
It is not his first time as a film director. In 2012 he directed the documentary Memorias del Futuro and he continued his career with Purgatorio: Viaje al Corazón de la Frontera (2013), Lupe Under the Sun (2016) and also the two documentary shorts After the Raid (2019) and Abuelos (2020). His films have received the support and recognition of institutions such as Tribeca, Sundance, and the Mexican Institute of Cinematography. This time, he releases a documentary that comes to reaffirm a promising career as a filmmaker. In addition, Rodrigo Reyes brings a fresh, intimate, and critical view of his country’s issues, old wounds that still ooze.
Rodrigo Reyes has had the help of old fellows like Inti Cordera, founder of Maroma Producciones and director of the DocsMX Festival. There is also Alejandro Mejía. However, there are new incorporations to the crew as the film editors Andrea Chignoli y Daniel Chávez Ontiveros. It is also worth noting the work as a screenwriter — working hand in hand with Reyes — of Lorena Padilla who graduated in Audiovisual Arts at the University of Guadalajara and a master’s degree in Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. Eduardo San Juan Breña is added to this whole group of talents, the Spanish ghost that accompanies us on this shocking journey — as it’s life itself — and who makes way to the all the actors of these stories of corruption, murder, and survival.
500 years later
A ghost wakes up on a beach after a shipwreck. A temporary shipwreck, over five hundred years ago. What happened to his peers? Where is Hernán Cortés now? «Maybe I’m dead and this is purgatory,» the ghost says. Doomed to be a witness of past errors — and horrors — and forced to listen to the testimonies of the Aztec people’s death and pain. Of course, chickens come home to roost.
Doubtlessly, 499 is a documentary, what we usually label as «non-fiction». Despite this, Rodrigo Reyes adds, in an anachronistic game of magical realism, the fictional element: the ghost. This unexpected and uncomfortable host reveals the harsh reality, the specific facts: a son whose father has been murdered for expressing his ideas, mothers who look for their children six feet under, a man who makes killing become a simple business, a mother who mourns her daughter, raped and tortured to death.
Hell is other people
It is no secret that the Spanish Conquest was a true genocide. In the name of God, homeland, and the king, the natives were subdued by the thousands. Either you pray to my god or you are dead. Of course, under the slogan of that something that the conquerors called civilization. From Veracruz to Tenochtitlan, they took it all by brute force attack. Those who were too broken to fight against «the good Christians,» were recruited to enlarge the ranks of Cortes’ army in the fight against Montezuma.
«Hell is other people», Sartre said. For the natives it was so. In 499, it is also true for Mexicans who nowadays collect the rotten seed of conquest, with a government and a part of the society corrupted and defeated. «Hell is other people» for the Spanish ghost also: wandering between stories of misery about the people he once subdued, he guides us through the different stories.
Metaphysics of regret
Rodrigo Reyes knows how to combine the real evidence of the victims of corruption with images filled with poetic and metaphysical beauty. Turner’s skies alternate with mountains of garbage. As Umberto Eco said, here we find the two aesthetic categories par excellence: beauty and ugliness.
Doomed to be a witness of past errors — and horrors — and forced to listen to the testimonies of the Aztec people’s death and pain.
The evolution of the phantom’s speech opens a window to hope. From the contempt and submission of the Aztec people and the recognition of their pain, to a certain understanding of otherness. Not so much as saying «I am the other», but as 3Rimbaud would say: Je est un autre. In other words, that I who no longer am has ceased to belong to me. That me, it´s all of us.
The ghost’s journey has a turning point: the garbage mountain. His penance has not started, it is only the beginning. Time to drop some of the ballast. Glory is a chimera.
In a different time, perhaps the ghost would have been another migrant, looking for a better future.
«It is time that it is time», it is said in 499. But what happens if time does not heal the wounds? What if it only leaves a scar that keeps hurting?